The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Fire Next Time Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Masterplots II: African American Literature The Fire Next Time Analysis

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“If the word integration means anything,” Baldwin tells his nephew, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” That process of changing reality is not limited to a knowledge of fact alone; fact must be seen with a simultaneous acknowledgment of alternatives and with a willingness to remake society. The journey here is to go beyond contradictions, and “Down at the Cross” explicates the contradictions in American Christianity and culture with a sharp critical eye.

Often Baldwin’s book is interpreted as a bellicose warning of impending racial holocaust; in truth, the book is anything but that. The book is a statement of pride in perseverance and a testament to the spirit of African Americans one century after emancipation. The Fire Next Time is, in fact, a call for the ending of America’s racial insanity, and a clear social analysis of America’s pluralistic possibilities.

“Down at the Cross” (and “down” carries its literal and vernacular suggestions), the book’s longest section, begins with a flat statement: It is a measure of the distance to be traveled in the coming pages, a starting point from which life and experience will distance the writer.I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use the word “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one.

A discursive analysis follows: Not only is this model of deity limited, but limiting. If an assertive, loving, black Christianity can be realized in an embrace of an inclusive God and vision, it cannot be in the confines of conventional white Christianity.

Thus, the book’s exploration of theology and culture proceeds. The progress, while neither neat nor systemic, brings the failures of Western culture to task, then attempts to deconstruct them against the teachings offered in an extended interview with the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad.

Baldwin’s discussion of the Nation of Islam had its origin in an August, 1961, meeting, actually an unplanned one. Baldwin had come to Chicago on business, and he was invited to the Chicago Temple after appearing on television with Malcolm X.

At the core of the exposition is Baldwin’s own twin sympathy with both integrationist and nationalist struggles. While he disagrees with Elijah Muhammad’s selective view of humanity, Baldwin shows compassion and sympathetic analysis, rather than enmity. The view of Elijah Muhammad is an emotional one, the dispatch from a distanced and fascinated reporter. Baldwin admires the persuasive abilities of the leader, much as he admires the Nation of Islam for its sensibility of community—a reach for the embracing love that is Baldwin’s desire. At the same time, both Muhammad’s presentation of the “white devil” theology and his autocratic control of his following disturb Baldwin.

Since part of the book is a passing from organized religion, Baldwin has some wry fun when Muhammad insists on offering him a car and driver to protect him “from the white devils” on the way to his destination. “I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town,” he notes.

It makes sense that individualism and cultural inclusiveness prompted the distancing of author and subject. Both early and late in his nonfiction, Baldwin tempered his social criticism with a soulful patriotism. America, with all its warts of racism, classism, homophobia, and historical unconsciousness, remained the most ambitious experiment in pluralism imaginable. The author’s social criticism was, in part, measured to encourage that experiment. A separate measure of that tribute emerges in a published dialogue (conducted between 1964 and 1965, shortly after the...

(The entire section is 1,059 words.)